As Keith Green recalls, while teaching a course on the African-American novel since World War II, he instantly connected with the stories, concepts, and themes found in black science fiction works.
He traveled to the remote Bellona in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren and took up residence in the decadent, post-apocalyptic society of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
But still, he thought, while these tales glimpsed futuristic worlds and terrain, there was something about them that seemed quite familiar.
“I realized that the fantastic or imaginative – a broader way of defining science fiction – has been a part of black cultural expression since the beginning,” explains Green, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden. “I was compelled to take a deeper look at what’s there.”
Green will do just that – and take his students along for the journey – as he offers a course, "Black Science Fiction," exploring science fiction produced by people of African descent in the 20th and 21st centuries. Organized around units that derive from fairly established sci-fi conventions – alternative life forms, time travel, advanced technologies, and dystopia – the course will survey how a speculative aesthetic has animated black cultural production.
“Though the course’s main archive will be written texts, it will also gesture towards the wider impact of the fanciful in such mediums as film, music, and clothing,” says the Lindenwold resident.
According to the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the course will lay the groundwork by examining the historical depictions of black characters in science fiction. He explains that blacks were often relegated to ancillary roles, while white, heterosexual males were portrayed as the protagonists and heroes. Historically, he adds, black characters have maintained what Toni Morrison called an “Africanist presence” in American literature, portrayed as sidekicks who provide emotional support or guidance for the main characters.
“If you think of Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost, they are earthy, grounding figures for characters who are lost and seeking guidance,” he explains. “They are there to ground the narrative.”
The course will then delve into the works of well-known black science fiction writers who challenged the norms – in part, based on science fiction they had read – and portrayed black characters in the leading roles. Representative authors include Butler; Delany, a professor of English and creative writing at Temple University; the Afro-Caribbean author Nalo Hopkinson; and the prolific husband-and wife duo Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes.
“When you read Butler and Delany, they talk about reading Isaac Asimov and always seeing the same types of characters,” he says. “If there are black characters there, they are seen as an aside, as a foil, as someone who is tangential to the plot and not really critical.”
However, stresses Green, black science fiction has flourished as more than just a counter response to prevailing norms. Rather, this literature has served as an important venue to express and contemplate realities and issues that are central to the black experience.
“For instance, a ghetto may be represented as a colony, a space that is separate from the larger, mainstream culture, which has limited resources and its own culture,” he says.
Similarly, he recalls that, in Butler’s novel Kindred, which is set in the 20th century, the protagonist travels through time to a period where slavery still exists. “Here you have a typical stock element in science fiction – time travel – and you map it onto the history of American slavery,” he says, adding, “This course is going to unpack what all of that means.”
Green maintains that, while black science fiction is generally regarded as a 20th and 21st century phenomenon, there are many parallels showing that it is part of a much wider continuum of black cultural expression. For instance, slave narratives were set in the south, but marketed to northern, middle-class, white audiences, says Green, who is an expert on the more than 6,000 surviving slave narratives.
“For these readers, these stories are about an alien world. It’s about a foreign technology and a different geography, and that’s what science fiction is all about,” says Green, author of the forthcoming book Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Imprisonment, Servitude and Captivity, 1816 to 1861, due out in early 2015.
In the same respect, Green notes, the ever-increasing prevalence of black science fiction in pop culture – found not only in literature, but in films, music, dance, and clothing – points the way to a genre that will continue to thrive well into the future. “This literature has become a vibrant part of black culture,” he says, “and what we are seeing more and more are symptoms of that tradition.”